As they relax on the Lawn on a particularly sunny day in Charlottesville, three members of the University band Backseat Driver sat down with the Cavalier Daily to do a deep-dive into their experiences as long-time players in the Charlottesville music scene.
Backseat Driver has a long and complicated history. Andrew Robinson, lead singer and guitarist and fourth-year Commerce student, and Ladson Ellis, singer and rhythm guitarist and Class of 2022 alumnus, were members of multiple different bands before settling on their current one. John Leo Luecke, bassist and fourth-year College student, was the last member to join.
“We had the same four people in two separate bands, but they had two different styles,” Robinson said. “We eventually just decided to just form one band and stick with the name backseat driver and to have combined influences.”
The band is also composed of two other members, Peter Wellman and Jonathan Danis, drummer and keyboardist respectively, who were unavailable for an interview.
Due to their long-term involvement in a number of different University bands, Ellis and Robinson are very knowledgeable of the Charlottesville music scene. They believe it has been an important contributor to their band’s success.
“There’s so many bands here,” Ellis said. “It creates almost a level of competition where we’re constantly pushing each other to be better.”
The band members’ incredibly different musical interests keeps Backseat Driver floating outside of genre categorization. Robinson loves “everything from 60s, 70s classic rock,” while Ellis cites The Pixies and Weezer as important influences on his music.
“[The Pixies] don’t focus so much on making everything perfect and altogether,” Ellis said. “It’s just more like what works.”
Luecke enjoys classic artists like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder, as well as newer musicians like Steve Lacy and Frank Ocean because “their songwriting styles are so unique and revolutionary.”
Ellis and Robinson write the majority of the band’s original songs. According to Ellis, Robinson’s specialty is “complicated chord structures — the more music theory kind of things,” while Ellis is more influenced by the fast-paced nature of punk music. He also asserts that the best songs come out when they work together, and they are often helped by Luecke and Wellman during jam sessions.
“I think the best writing we get is when Andrew comes to me with something and then I change it up and we edit it together,” Ellis said.
As of now, Backseat Driver has half a dozen original songs in their back pocket. One of the band’s favorite songs is called “Alone Tonight.”
“It’s about jealousy and freaking out and following down circular horrible thinking in your head,” Ellis said. “It’s like when you’re with a girl at a bar and she’s talking to another guy and just racing insane thoughts of jealousy is the point of the song.”
In terms of their covers, the members of Backseat Driver enjoy putting their own spin on more classic rock songs. Robinson cites their cover of the Beatles’ song “While my Guitar Gently Weeps” as an example of this.
“I love that song the way we do it because it’s so much better than the original,” Robinson said. “It’s like a hard rock song almost.”
Although the band would sometimes prefer to exclusively play their original songs, they received some advice from local band AFTM on the importance of covering crowd favorites.
“We’ve been playing ‘Free Bird’ since we started,” Ellis said. “One of the guys from AFTM was talking to me after the set and he said to me, ‘There are bands that play “Free Bird,” and there are bands that don’t play “Free Bird.” But you have to play ‘Free Bird’ until you get to the point where you can stop playing ‘Free Bird.’’”
The members of Backseat Driver are currently working on a three-song demo of original songs that will be released on Spotify. Robinson believes that the band has “a lot of promise,” and all members agree they want to continue to play together for the time to come.
“Our goal right now is to get something out there. I would like to do the whole thing, get the record deal, do the tour … we’re kind of all in,” Ellis said.
The members of Backseat Driver look forward to a future of lively gigs and increasingly large audiences — even after they stop playing “Free Bird.”